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The Mulholland Muse

Most people know the name Mulholland Drive from the eponymous David Lynch movie. If you go deeper, you recognize the roman à clef elements that were interpreted into the plot of Chinatown — the Noah Cross character played by John Huston is heavily derived from the machinations of William Mulholland during the period know as the “California Water Wars.”

An Irish immigrant who became chief engineer of the Los Angeles Water Department, it was Mulholland who conceived and oversaw the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, that “stone river” that bisects most of the San Fernando Valley, scene of innumerable auto chases in cinema (you’ll know it when you see it) and best remembered as the place a gang of giant, atomically mutated ants established an L.A. beachhead in Them! Mulholland also helped build the Panama Canal, the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the Hoover Dam.

Mulholland’s biggest folly was the construction of the St. Francis Dam near Saugus in San Francisquito Canyon. Built in 1926, the dam burst at three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, wiping out a sixty-five-mile swath between Oxnard and Ventura, virtually destroying everything between it and the Pacific Ocean under twenty-five feet of water, with blast waves cresting at seventy-five feet. More than five hundred people died. Mulholland, acquitted of malfeasance, later committed suicide in 1935 at the age of seventy-nine. The sole monument to him is a fountain in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles.

(For anyone innocent of the checkered history of Los Angeles, or who thinks the corruption started with the Water Wars, guess what? The slimy double-dealing and power-broking runs all the way back to the roots. Read a terrific book called Bread and Hyacinths by Paul Greenstein, Nigey Lennon, and Lionel Rolfe.)

And when people are thinking of noir or hard-boiled storytelling, most often they are thinking of movies, not books . . . even the movies that sprang from books too many noir fans have never read.

If you see a car chase on a winding road in any film from the 1940s or 1950s, chances are it was shot on Mulholland Drive. Modern noir has its back alleys and cul-de-sacs, but its main artery is Mulholland.

HollywoodlandYou know the Crossroads? As in “I went down to the Crossroads / Tried to flag a ride . . . ?” The location, if one exists, of the so-called Crossroads where one may barter with supernatural forces in exchange for wealth, talent, or success is widely disputed. (Some say it’s where Highways 61 and 49 cross; others say it’s the intersection of two railroad lines — “where the Southern crosses the [Yellow] Dog” — and still others argue that it doesn’t matter; the Crossroads can be anywhere one is picked up in order to seal the deal. Mulholland Drive has a great crossroads, at Woodrow Wilson Drive. I used to live very close to it. Go down there at three in the morning and tell me it doesn’t feel just a little bit spooky; “off,” somehow.

So when I was writing Internecine — itself a very L.A.-o-centric novel — I made sure to set a big scene on Mulholland Drive. A few aspects of this passage were convincing enough to fool people who thought they knew every inch of that road, and I’m talking about the folks who’ve driven on it from the Hollywood Hills all the way to the ocean. You have to know the tricks. You have to drive on it fast. At night. Preferably in the rain. En route are a million dark rendezvous. Yellow-eyed coyotes and bobcats spy on your missions from the brush. You might find a corpse, or deposit one. You might even find one of Charlie Sheen’s hijacked Benzes. (Two, so far.)

In sum, Mullholland is a great place to get hard-boiled.

DAVID J. SCHOW is the author of the celebrated shoot-’em-up Gun Work (Hard Case Crime, 2008) and the black ops thriller Internicine (St. Martin’s, 2010), as well as the Hunt Among the Killers of Men entry in Charles Ardai’s Gabriel Hunt adventure series (Leisure Books, 2010) and Bullets of Rain (HarperCollins, 2003). His 1987 novel The Kill Riff is still the high bar when it comes to mixing sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and gunplay. His work is seen frequently in films (The Crow) and television (Masters of Horror). His next novel is called Upgunned.